Thursday, February 15, 2018

Data-Driven Delusions in Professional Sports.

When I was in junior high school, a book I read on a regular basis was Stan Fischler's The Best, Worst and Most Unusual in Sports. I took particular relish in the worst and most unusual sections of the book and enjoyed regaling friends with the tales of how certain events could possibly happen, whether it was the Brooklyn Dodgers getting three guys out at the same base in a single play or a truant benchrider who convinced his team that he was absent because of his father's funeral, only to have his GM write a condolence letter to the family and receive a reply from said dead father.

The stories left me incredulous and even in my early teens, I knew that none of these worsts or unusuals would be repeated or surpassed. There was too much variability that had been weeded out of professional sports and it would be the domain of the bush leagues or kids playing at the pee-wee level to come even remotely close to such events even being approached. The extent to which the major league sports and the Olympics had become professionalized made it increasingly unlikely for such unexpected events to occur. The probabilities were gradually being eliminated. It would be easy to argue that those probabilities are being eliminated amongst even kids as they are directed into sports in pursuit of a potential career that they are being groomed for rather than a diversion to fill the weekends or summers and develop the social and team-building skills that parents were once keen to nurture in their children.

Skip ahead the 40 years from the publication of Fischler's diverting book and the sports landscape is less tolerant of variability than ever before. Foregone conclusions are more and more likely in professional sports and whenever there is a story that insists on defying the expected narrative, it is a moment to pause and dust off the hyperboles of wonder that Leicester City's improbable run to the championship in the British Premier League in 2016 and perhaps the National Hockey League's expansion Vegas Golden Knights' accomplishments in their first season of play. The unexpected is becoming increasingly rare, unexpected comfort food for the sports fan as advanced statistical analytics get applied to more and more sports.  Perhaps it is only the Olympics, where geographic outliers participate in individual sports that you would not expect, that there is even the slightest hint of the randomness that is becoming endangered in sports.

There has been a gradual onset of strategic knowledge and analysis altering the playing of professional sports over the past three or four decades.  Video was the first leap in this process, giving teams the opportunity to review their play and their opponents' to adapt strategies.  Players were more cognizant of what they could expect and what they could do and meanwhile the playing field shifted. Data has been harvested and it was integrated into the kinesthetics of performance, strategy and more.  These approaches gave athletes the opportunity to hone their skills and address areas of weakness.

From there the integration of technology or data has proceeded and evolved to the point where the statistics available to assess a players performance require significant analysis. The data crunching that was at the heart of Michael Lewis' Moneyball, seem a distant memory as well. At the time of the book, Oakland A's manager Billy Beane was looking in part for the return on investment that would prompt him to spend his money on the combination of players that would outproduce a higher-priced star who was accruing a big market Major League Baseball salary that would be offered by the likes of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees. He looked for an succeeded in finding bargain-priced talent. Beyond that there was also the matter of the impact on strategy. That has brought all major sports to the data obsession that we are encountering in more recent years.

As Hollinger numbers (NBA) and Corsi numbers emerge to significance as relied upon for strategy to the extent that they are, the games are being transformed into something not only less random or subject to the quirks or unique aspects of teams' or players' approach to the game, but likely colder and less entertaining than was the case in earlier generations, when despite lower fitness levels of the athletes and other aspects of sport that have gradually been perfected and strategized out of the equation of a season, though not every game. The advanced analysis and the strategies that result from them in this new-data-age of professional sports has limited the randomness of sports and perhaps, with it, the appeal as well. There is still some old school preference for the "eye test," the basic indicators that an athlete or team has the talent and tenacity to succeed, but those perceptions are increasingly less trusted in favour of a data pool that speaks more eloquently. The clinical, precise pindown that occurs with analytics is taking more and more of the soul out of the game. In the book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, Leonard Koren talks about how the same thing occurs among swordsmiths -- those who trusted their instincts in the process have been succeeded by younger smiths who are familiar with the data they need to consider but are less conscious of the "soul" of the sword.

fans [will] disengage from an event that is less spectacle than live action algorithm with water breaks

Despite what the data might report to coaches and players, it is the human body that best carries the knowledge and technique of an individual or a team. There is still a place where muscle memory influences much of what an athlete does and an individual's potential to create in the arena may be compromised in favour of more certainty about what can happen in different situations. The genie is out of the bottle as far as the changes in sport strategy are concerned as advanced analytics are concerned and there may be more and more chance creative athletes -- not those with exceptional obvious gifts in terms of speed, size or other attributes, but those who may have a less predictable or more idiosyncratic -- get misused in the pursuit of a greater certain or predictability for a team. As scoring increases in the NFL and NBA or declines in the NHL due to the application of analytics there is a greater chance that the soul of each respective sport -- the essence that is cultivated on playgrounds, streets or ponds -- disappears and fans disengage from an event that is less spectacle than live action algorithm with water breaks.

It seems unlikely that the analytics will be abandoned anytime soon, but it is helping the teams more than their sports. There are still individual players who can stand out despite the extent to which analytics can be applied but the randomness and entertainment value of sports that is so much of its appeal is quickly being pared away in favour of a certainty or stability that will tone down the drama and leave the outliers on the outside looking in. These are the consequences when organizations competing against one another take the rational approach available to them and pursue the solutions that suit them and make the best use of the resources and talent available to them. It all makes sense in the short term, but there is a high probability that the games gradually become less appealing due to the interventions to narrow the possibility of unexpected outcomes whether in the course of a single game or an entire season of play.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Disintegrations of Object and Thought

Whenever I am walking my son to and from his elementary school, we take a steel pedestrian bridge built in 1959 across one of the busier thoroughfares in Calgary. It has more life behind it than ahead of it at this point. Its surfaces and joints foster great blooms of rust and the chain link barriers on each side of the bridge are listing enough to make me wonder if they could bear my weight if I leaned against them to accommodate someone approaching from the other direction.

The rust and the peeling paint of the bridge align with the essence of wabi-sabi and visually there is much about it to evoke recognition of time's imprint on the steel.  At the same time, there is a (perhaps naive) trust on my part that the city is aware of the bridge's age and condition and that the city's engineers have regularly assessed and confirmed the bridge's structural integrity for the time being.

The decay and decline of this bridge cannot be hidden or papered over with some blather or posturing to divert attention from reality. If an attempt were made ignore the threat of its ongoing decay rather than acknowledge that the bridge has passed its best before date and needs replacing before it collapses.

The difference between the decay of the bridge and other similar objects and physical structures and other decays is one that I have been trying to align with the principles of wabi-sabi. I test how wabi-sabi might apply beyond design and a Buddhist detachment from objects and the illusions of permanence and attainable perfection, I look closely at how less tangible things like symbols and - if I were to stretch the concepts - values are, like other things that are exposed to the elements, incomplete, imperfect and impermanent.

Leonard Koren says that "even intangible things like reputation, family heritage, historical memory, scientific theorems. mathematical proofs, great art and literature... all eventually fade into oblivion and nonexistence." (Koren, p. 49) I would feel comfortable saying that values and beliefs, especially the beliefs that we believe we know or come to accept as facts are especially prone to decline and decay.

Just as time and change rust bridges, erode rocks and desiccate wood, time and change impact our institutions, statues erected to commemorate conquest, exclusionary phrases, masculine illusions of entitlement and icons that are retained out of a false sense of sentimentality, a quaintness, or the illusion no ill-will is meant despite the actions or attitudes that have retained these things in the middle of our communities despite their decay and the fact that they should never have been tolerated.  All too often, these objects, symbols and values have been retained and protected from the passage of time despite the disconnect from acceptance or tolerance. The changes that have so recently occurred are the latest harbingers of a sea change in our society and it will be interesting to determine of these changes are mere minor victories in the name of inclusion while the outcome of the greater battle seems to be further and further from being decided in the name of inclusion.

There are signs that the exclusionary side -- yes, the racist, sexist, colonialist, tribalist, anti-ecological side -- are equipped to do battle and have the money and the will borne of anxiety to keep up their side of the fight. In the United States, politicians of this overall phobic nature are finding the rhetoric and bull shit to fend off progressive movements by asserting that the organs, laws and institutions of government need not adapt to the times, that the community must adapt to the creaking organs of government in the name of restoring the misnamed and vaguely-measured, "good old days." They fear, ultimately, the complexity and paradox that come with considering an entire community rather than just the perceived (but former) pluralities or majorities they are a part of.

Just as our communities recognize and adapt to the obvious physical decline of our infrastructure, we must also acknowledge that the values and symbols that we take comfort from are not the certain, inviolable bedrock that we assume they are - especially if they are simplistic or reinforces the beliefs that you want to retain unchallenged.  As symbols lose their significance and values are challenged by the times the comforts they provide are false and delusional. The comments and spin that preserve these rusting, decaying objects and symbols ought to be challenged and opposed. We would be left with the uncertainties and discomfort that come when delusions are lost, but we would be progressing toward a better understanding of ourselves and challenge ourselves to evolve and be more mindful of the times we live in. Patience will replace impulse, consideration will replace attachment to the bygone and we can move to a higher level of consciousness as we allow dated, fading symbols to meet their ends rather than cling to a feeling that resembles nostalgia but is a vestige of a lazier, more toxic mindset.